Iranian president Hassan Rouhani speaks at his inauguration. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)
President Hassan Rouhani’s just-completed visit to New York, which he capped with a phone conversation with President Obama—the first-ever discussion between leaders of the two countries since January 1979—was a triumphant one.
Without a single misstep, during several days in which Rouhani held meeting after meeting with world leaders, diplomats, foreign policy experts and Middle East specialists, and reporters, the new president of Iran showed himself to be ready for prime time. The Nation attended three of Rouhani’s gatherings, and watching him up close, it’s clear that he succeeded in what came to be called a “charm offensive”—one churlish commentator on CNN called it a “charm assault”—designed to persuade not just President Obama but the American people, too, that Iran is ready to deal.
More important, Rouhani convincingly stated that he has the authority to make a deal. Repeatedly, he and his aides, including the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations, said that Rouhani’s overwhelming election in June—when he defeated a passel of ultraconservative and hardline candidates—means that he has a “mandate” to implement the agenda he campaigned on. That’s important, because Iran has real politics. Contrary to the assertions of many Iran-watchers in Israel and among hawks and neoconservatives in the United States, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the so-called supreme leader, is not a dictator. Instead, he rules by consensus, often reflecting competing and conflicting currents within Iran’s various power centers, from the military and the Revolutionary Guard to the clerics, themselves often split into several factions, the parliament and the various, complex institutions of the Iranian state. Rouhani’s strong victory in June, which surprised some, sent a message to Khamenei that Rouhani is not to be trifled with. Not only that, but Rouhani himself—who, after all, served for many years as one of two representatives of Khamenei on Iran’s national security council—has kept himself in the good graces of Khamenei while corraling an important domestic political coalition. That coalition includes Iran’s reformists, the Green Movement, important elements of the business community who often rally around former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, and a disparate group of Iranian realists, think-tank dwellers and current and former national security experts.
In a press conference that lasted more than a hour on Friday, during which Rouhani dealt with rapid-fire questions from US and international media without notes or aides whispering in his ear—and sometimes speaking a few words of English, a language in which he is fluent—Rouhani made it clear that he has the clout to strike a deal. “My government has the full, necessary authority when it comes to the nuclear negotiations,” he said, noting that he’s designated his foreign minister, the sophisticated Mohammad Javad Zarif, as the person who’ll handle the talks. Rouhani emphasized that he has “full backing of all three centers of Iran.” Challenged by a skeptical reporter, Rouhani said he can carry out the talks to completion because his electoral campaign raised all these issues, against candidates who were strongly opposed to his moderate views, and the others lost. “There was a drastic difference [in] those debates, among those candidates,” said Rouhani. It was the people [of Iran] who chose moderation, through the ballot box. It was the people who voted for our program.” As time goes on, according to Rouhani, the opposition to his view will diminish in Iran and the support for moderate views will increase.
The previous evening, speaking to several hundred establishment American foreign policy experts and Middle East analysts at a gathering at the Hilton Hotel, Rouhani put it this way: “I ran on the platform of moderation and won the election by a large margin.” He compared Iran’s stability, and its election, to the sectarianism, instability and terrorism that prevails in many countries in the region, adding that he will bring a “voice of moderation” to the region.
And he said: “My government is prepared to leave no stone unturned in the search for a solution with the P5+1.”
The anti-Iran lobby in the United States, which nearly coincides with the Israel lobby, is apoplectic about Rouhani’s success in New York, as would be expected, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel on Tuesday will deliver what promises to be a scathing rebuttal of Rouhani’s ideas. But their arguments are falling flat, and their demands of Iran—that Tehran halt all enrichment of uranium, shut its facilities, close its light-water reactor and export its stockpiles of low- and medium-enriched uranium—are laughable nonstarters. That’s because the deal that will be discussed in October in Geneva between Iran and the P5+1 involves international approval of Iran’s continued right to enrich (to levels not exceeding 3.5 to 5 percent), along with stricter international supervision of Iran’s nuclear work. That’s the only deal possible, and it’s what been on the table, or near the table, since 2009 at least. Any idea that Iran will give up its right to a civilian nuclear program that includes enrichment is a fantasy.
As Rouhani said, “We will never forgo our…intrinsic right to a peaceful nuclear program, including uranium enrichment.” No amount of pressure, arm-twisting, threats and sanctions will cause Iran to abandon this right, he said.
Rouhani said that what he’s heard from world leaders in New York has led to believe that the conditions are ripe for a deal. “I have arrived at the conclusion that the atmosphere is different than in the past,” he said. “Even in America, it is much better than in the past.” He and Zarif have suggested that it might be possible to reach a final agreement in six months to a year.
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